If Beale Street Could Talk (2018)
Trust Love All the Way
A love story set in the working class African-American community in the 1970s, If Beale Street Could Talk sees Moonlight (2016) director Barry Jenkins adapt James Baldwin’s 1974 novel of the same name to remarkable, haunting effect.
Setting its scene in early ’70s Harlem, If Beale Street Could Talk maps out the relationship between Tish Rivers (KiKi Layne) and Alonzo ‘Fonny’ Hunt (Stephan James), as well as the community around them. Tish works at the perfume counter in a department store. Fonny works in a restaurant and makes rough-hewn, expressive sculptures in his off hours. Jenkins employs an impressionistic, non-linear approach to time when telling their story: Tish lets her family know that she’s pregnant, Fonny and Tish are falling in love, Fonny is listening to his friend Daniel (Brian Tyree Henry) describe the horrors of prison, Fonny is in jail for the rape of a Puerto Rican immigrant.
He didn’t do it, of course, but the sworn testimony of a racist cop (Ed Skrein) and a weak alibi make him a good fit for the crime. Seasoned viewers might think that, with this plot development, Beale Street might content itself to drift down the path of a courtroom drama as Tish and her mother, Sharon (Regina King, who just won a Best Supporting Actress Oscar for her turn here) struggle to raise money for legal representation and try to track down the victim, Victoria (Emily Rios), in order to convince her to change her testimony against Fonny. And yes, this kind of procedural narrative is an element. Jenkins’ ambitions, however, are grander, setting out to create nothing less than a visual poem encompassing the African-American experience in the 20th century.
He succeeds, too. Beale Street is no sprawling, decades-spanning epic, though; it lets the micro speak for the macro, the telling detail to stand in for the sweeping saga, communicating its themes in tones, rhythms, looks, and moments. There’s tender passion in the love story between Fonny and Tish, heartbreak in the injustice perpetrated on both Fonny and Victoria (and, by extension, everyone in their respective communities). It’s downright pummeling at times, seeing the characters get buffeted by racism both overt and casual, economic deprivation and religious intolerance. Fonny’s devout mother, played by Aunjanue Ellis, Undercover Brother (2002), condemns her grandchild for being conceived out of wedlock and is soundly and literally slapped down by Regina King’s Sharon — a moment that, if we’re being reductive, probably won her the Oscar.
Yet the film also pulses with vibrant, defiant life. Its city streets are dirty and oppressive, but its living spaces are filled with light and hard-won laughter. Its characters are beaten down by blind prejudice — consider the scene where Tish compares how black and white men treat her differently at the perfume counter — but hold onto their small joys fiercely.
The film is subject to a certain self-seriousness that descends from its literary roots, and that could perhaps be labeled pretentious if it weren’t so effective. Jenkins is swinging for the fences here, attempting to mount an epic social drama of real import, and he succeeds beautifully. If Beale Street Could Talk refuses to court its audience — it’s too confident in its content and its artistry. Viewers need to put in the effort to engage with it, but the rewards are ample.
4.5 / 5 – Highly Recommended
Reviewed by Travis Johnson